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A RED HERRING WITHOUT MUSTARD by Alan Bradley: Book Review

Wouldn’t we all like to know a girl like Flavia de Luce?

A Red Herring Without Mustard is the third novel in this series.  Flavia, a delightfully precocious eleven year old, lives in the  English countryside with her family in the 1950s, although given their lifestyle the book could have been set thirty years earlier.  Besides Flavia, the de Luce family consists of her father and her two older sisters, Ophelia (Feely) and Daphne (Daffy).  Harriet, the mother of the girls, died in a climbing accident in Tibet when Flavia was a toddler.

The de Luces live at Buckshaw, a magnificent estate, with a cook and a gardener/butler as staff.  However, due to ruinous taxes and the death of Harriet who died without leaving a will, the family’s resources are severely strained and the father may have to sell his beloved stamp collection (horrors) to pay the bills.  It appears to me that the father does nothing but buy stamps and admire them, and the three girls don’t seem to go to school, but I may have missed something that explained this in an earlier novel.

Feely and Daffy are incredibly mean to Flavia, who thus spends much of her time either cleverly paying them back with even more outrageous tricks or else hiding away in her chemistry laboratory in the east wing of the mansion.

The novel opens with Flavia having her fortune told by a Gypsy woman, Fenella Faa, at the church’s annual fair. When the fortune teller tells Flavia that she “sees” a woman on a mountain who is trying to come home, Flavia is certain that the woman the Gypsy sees is Harriet.  Frightened, she upsets a candle on the table in the Gypsy’s tent, starting a fire that destroys the tent.  Feeling guilty, Flavia allows Fenella to bring her horse and caravan to the Buckshaw estate for one night, deep in the woods so that Favia’s father won’t see it.

The next morning Flavia stops by to see Fenella and is horrified to find the woman covered with blood and barely breathing.  She runs to town and brings a doctor back with her to the encampment, and Fenella is taken to the local hospital.  Who could have done such a terrible thing?  No one even knew the Gypsy and her caravan were there.

Although the local police are immediately brought into the case, Flavia is certain she can solve the mystery on her own. Hasn’t she already helped solve two previous crimes?  And, after all, it was she who invited the woman to stay in the woods of the estate.  Guilt, responsibility, and curiosity combine to make Flavia believe that it’s up to her to find the person who brutalized Fenella and left her for dead.

The curious title of the novel is taken from a 16th-century book entitled A Looking Glasse, for London and Englande:  “…a cup of ale without a wench, why, alas, ’tis like an egg without salt or a red herring without mustard.”  Flavia is definitely the spice in this series, with just enough sugar in her mix to make her someone each reader will want to follow in future novels.  She will capture your interest and your heart.

You can read more about Alan Bradley at his web site.

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